To address China and Russia’s rapidly growing space capabilities and mitigate potential threats in the domain, the Space Force wants to deploy sustained satellite maneuver capabilities by 2028.
That would be a complete shift from current space operations, which are more positional than dynamic, said Lt Gen. John E. Shaw, deputy commander for the U.S. Space Command.
“We launch a platform into orbit, and we tend to leave it right in that orbit,” Shaw said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Schriever Spacepower Series event July 6. “The only energy state changes from that orbit tend to usually be station-keeping maneuvers, maybe some slight repositioning depending on what you’re doing.”
These positional satellites were designed when space was an uncontested domain, which is not the case anymore. Competitors like China and Russia now seek to contest this domain with capabilities like ground-based lasers that threaten critical space systems, said retired Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, explorer chair for the Mitchell Institute Spacepower Advantage Center of Excellence.
“Their capabilities include everything from ground-based direct ascent missiles to electronic warfare, jamming, and co-orbital rendezvous satellites,” Chilton said. “They’ve used their space capabilities to support precision ground strikes on Ukrainian territory, jammers to disrupt GPS satellites, and have conducted cyber-attacks on space-based communication systems.”
As the United States advances its space capabilities, so have its adversaries. Without sustained maneuver, positional satellites are threatened by rivals’ capabilities and left practically defenseless, Shaw said.
“We want to operate more dynamically, but we’re unable to because they cannot sustain maneuver,” he said. “We got there, because that’s how we evolved our technologies in the space domain, but we’re at an inflection point now where we have to change that equation altogether.”
Positional satellites can only use their fuel sparingly, which has led to constrained capabilities for the Space Force since these satellites can’t be maneuvered continuously, Shaw said. Dynamic satellites would be able to defend themselves and deter future attacks.
“If I could refuel our [Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program] satellites once a month, we would be operating them completely differently than we do now. They’d be operating at maximum thrust levels and [change in velocity] levels that are unlike anything we do right now. You’re operating at the whims of the domain,” he continued.
Meanwhile, Shaw addressed national security concerns extending to cislunar space. “I had read a few weeks ago that I think there’s no fewer than 100 missions planned to the lunar environment in the next 10 years,” Shaw said. “How soon before we start talking about lunar congestion as we start getting a lot of activity up there? We’re responsible for identifying threats, hazards and such, being transparent, making it a safer operation and logically extending into the lunar environment.”
With NASA and countries like China going to the moon, maneuverable satellites will be critical to giving swift responses to threats in the space domain, Shaw said.
“Our response to any kind of activity or threat or suspicious behavior that we see in the domain is limited today,” Shaw added. “If we saw a satellite behaving suspiciously, but it was sufficiently far enough away from the [geosynchronous space situational awareness program] platform, it would take us a while to get there given the limited fuel budget.”
“If we weren’t constrained … then we could respond much more quickly to any activity, and a potential adversary would know that we could do that,” Shaw continued. “I think that has an inherent deterrent value, our ability to understand what’s going on in the domain and respond. In a way that maintains initiative, better indications and warning, better intelligence collection, better ability to survive a threat and better ability to hold an adversary capability at risk.”
The Space Force is still working on a way to give its satellites sustained maneuver capabilities in the next five years.
“I think that we will get to a logistics and sustainment layer in the space domain that is mutually supportive of commercial, civil and national security capabilities that will help us in this problem that we’ve posed and will be part of helping push towards that solution,” Shaw said. “And I think it actually will help everybody operate in the domain more sustainably, and more effectively.”